I spent longer in La Paz than I planned sorting out my final travel plans and return home. I realised that as I had booked my flight early to avoid the high carnival prices, I now had very little time left in Bolivia. And I hard hardly seen anything that I wanted to see.
Salar de Uyuni
Trying to cram in the two most important trips, I took a night train to Uyuni - the base point for tours of the salt flats. Salar de Uyuni is the most popular tourist destination in Bolivia as I am told it is unique and the scenery is stunning. The morning I arrived I joined a tour group by jeep out on to the salt flats, along with hordes of other tourists.
The salt flats appeared before us like a mirage. A flat, shimmering, shining salt crystal desert expanded over the horizon. The rainy season had brought a short covering of water turning it into a blinding mirror, perfectly reflecting the surrounding mountains and volcanoes, which appeared to be floating in the air.
The experience reminded me of a Salvador Dali painting, especially when we staged perspective trickery photos. I
wasn't aware but apparently the done thing is do take clever pictures taking advantage of the expanse of flat uniform space. Typically, the three Israeli girls in our group had come prepared with a variety of props to take amusing pictures.
The Silver Mines of Potosi
That same night I took another night bus to Potosi. After a few hours sleep I visited the museum in the morning to learn more about the city. I found that it was once one of the richest cities in the Spanish empire due to the huge silver deposits found in the small mountain overlooking the city. It created a silver boom and was the place where the new world's coins were minted. Now the silver deposits are vastly depleted and the city has fallen into decline.
The main reason for visiting the city was to take a tour around the silver mines. They are still operative but earnings are low. Despite that, the mines have always been the main source of income. Now tourism is taking over as many backpackers flock to visit the mines.
I joined a tour with an ex miner in the afternoon. After kitting up
in protective clothes and head torches we visited the miners' market where visiting tourists buy gifts for the miners. As is the custom, we bought some dynamite and some booze - not a particularly safe combination!
On the surface near the entrance of the mines we saw how the ore is extracted from the lumps of rock hauled out of the mine. The process involves a variety of archaic machinery utilising centrifuge and buoyancy, and a number of highly noxious chemicals including cyanide. The whole process is done without any protective clothing or equipment....
Before descending into the mines we lit some dynamite and posed with the lit stick in our hands before watching it explode 20m away. Only in Bolivia....
We stooped and entered the rocky tunnel, our mouths covered to exclude the thick Silica and Asbestos dust filling the air and covering everything. The guide book assured us that the NHS have asserted that a couple of hours exposure would not have any averse effects on our health. But it was pretty unpleasant.
As we descended further the tunnels got smaller and smaller until, at some points, we were squeezing through holes on our
hands and knees. It's a good job I'm not claustrophobic! The air was hot, stale, and saturated with thick dust. The tunnels were rough rock holes, sometimes descending sharply and unstably into the bowels of the earth. We visited the rock face currently being worked by rock climbing down a vertical shaft and then on our hands and knees through a hole.
We met a miner taking a break in one of the passages. He was installing another wad of coca leaves into his cheek. He seemed pretty drugged up already and I couldn't understand a word he said. Luckily our guide translated into regular Spanish for us. He was on his own today: his two sons, age 13 and 16, usually help him. We learned that the miners work long hours of hard labour in these horrific conditions. Coca chewing is essential to endure it. It gives them energy and stamina, allowing them to work for long periods without breaks.
They do it for the money, of course. Traditionally, by Bolivian standards, they can earn quite well. But these days there is very little silver left and some days they hardly make anything. Yet their health is
at serious risk. I was told that 10 years of exposure to the dust and gases in the mines is enough to kill you. The average life expectancy is around 50 something years. Although I met several miners who have spent 25 years working down there 8-12 hours per day six days per week. They look like it too! The miners numb the pain by drinking bootleg alcohol and chewing coca.
With a little more appreciation of our working environment and lifestyle in England, and of clean air and light, I emerged from the mines. That night I took another night bus - the third in a row - back to La Paz, ready to fly the following day to my final destination......
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